Northern Ireland

Tracing the story of Tyrone famine victim Jane Cook

Picture of Lyn McLeavy Image copyright Gillian Fitzpatrick
Image caption Historian Lyn McLeavy has said "she would burst into tears" if anyone came forward with information on Jane Cook

Lyn McLeavy has spent almost her entire life tracing the story of her great, great grandmother Jane Cook, an Irish Famine victim from County Tyrone.

She was shipped to a notorious Australian jail as she tried to keep her starving family alive.

The search began as a child for the historian from Melbourne, who would ask her father: "Daddy, where did I come from?"

Ms McLeavy is visiting Newry, County Down, as Northern Ireland commemorates the Irish Famine for the first time.

Mother-of-two, Jane Cook, was 26 years old when she was jailed for 10 years in Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania).

Her crime was the theft of a pot lid.

"I was always trying to find Jane," said Ms McLeavy.

"I became completely obsessed with her. I immersed my life in the archives in Tasmania, in Ireland, but I could never find the townland that she came from in Tyrone.

"I could never find any living relatives."

Image copyright Ger Power
Image caption A monument in Dublin to those who suffered in the 1845 Irish famine that became known as the Great Hunger

'Terrible life'

Jane Cook had a life of "trauma and tragedy" that began when she started stealing meat to keep her family alive when her husband, William Young, died.

She was jailed for three months and served her first prison sentence with her two children in Omagh jail.

As a struggling mother, Ms Cook left her youngest child in a nearby church, a decision "to protect the baby's wellbeing", said Ms McLeavy.

In 1850, the Tyrone woman was transferred to the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Van Diemen's Land, with her eight-year-old child.

In "the Great Hunger" of 1845, 1.5 million people emigrated to Canada, America and England.

Many died of typhus on the so-called "coffin ships".

While crossing to Australia, Ms Cook suffered "hysteria" on the boat along with a number of other women.

Image caption During the Great Famine "if you stole food, as Jane did, you were sent as a prisoner", said Ms McLeavy

"When she got to Van Diemen's Land, her daughter was taken off her and sent to an orphanage. I think she just had too many traumas to cope with," said Ms McLeavy.

She "was sent to the ends of the earth" to a prison.

Ms Cook married a man who was also convicted for stealing food in the Irish Famine and they had three daughters.

She became homeless and destitute when he died and her children were taken from her and sent to Melbourne.

'Burst into tears'

"It was a fractured, fractured, family going on for generations. There was a lot of prejudice against convicts. It didn't matter if they were victims of the famine, they were still treated like outcasts," she said.

"The prejudice against her as an Irish woman lasted her entire life and she died in very poor circumstances."

Ms McLeavy is a descendent of one of the children shipped to Melbourne.

She said travelling to Northern Ireland gives her a sense of closeness to her relatives.

She has traced the McLeavy side of her family to Omeath in County Louth but has been unable to find any living relatives.

"It would be wonderful if that happened as well," she said.

Ms McLeavy told her story at the National Famine Commemoration Conference in Newry and appealed for people to come forward with information on Jane Cook, in particular the townland where she lived in County Tyrone.

If they did, "I would probably burst into tears".

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